Past sins haunt the Mennonite church in the contradictory legacy of John Howard Yoder, the acclaimed Mennonite theologian who sexually abused dozens of women.
The sins were the church’s as well as Yoder’s.
Sixteen years after Yoder’s death and 21 years after the walls of secrecy surrounding his predatory behavior came crashing down, new calls are emerging for the church to confess its role as an enabler of sexual violence by its brightest theological star.
These calls represent more than pleas for justice. They stand as declarations of empowerment for all who have suffered the double indignity of violation and then of being disbelieved or shunted aside to protect a false image of virtue.
It appears these voices are being heard. An announcement by Mennonite Church USA’s executive director raises hopes that fuller truth will be told and deeper healing will happen.
On Aug. 19, Ervin Stutzman announced that he and Sara Wenger Shenk, president of Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary in Elkhart, Ind., where Yoder taught from 1965 to 1984, “are convening a discernment group to guide a process that we hope will contribute to healing for victims of [Yoder’s] abuse as well as others deeply hurt by his harmful behavior. We hope this work will lead to churchwide resolve to enter into lament, repentance and restoration for victims of sexual abuse by other perpetrators as well.”
The announcement follows urging for confession and truth by voices such as Barbra Graber, Carolyn Holderread Heggen and Ruth Krall. Graber wrote “What’s to Be Done About John Howard Yoder?,” which originally appeared at ourstoriesuntold.org, a website run by Rachel Halder dedicated to empowering survivors of abuse and raising awareness of sexual violence. An updated version of Graber’s article appears in this issue of MWR.
Krall’s extensive research and analysis of the Yoder abuse saga is essential to understanding this complex story. Her book, The Mennonite Church and John Howard Yoder, Collected Essays, can be downloaded at ruthkrall.com. She believes the best way to prevent situations like Yoder’s from recurring is for the church to “give up its self-protective denial about its past complicity with Yoder.” Honesty today will produce a stronger church tomorrow.
AMBS is fully committed to that honesty, Shenk writes on her blog at ambs.edu. Promising “a new transparency in truth-telling,” she says: “It’s time to say frankly that we have fallen short. Even those of us now in leadership who weren’t remotely involved at the time must commit to the deep listening needed to get the facts straight.” She laments that those Yoder victimized were “disbelieved for too long even as an abuser was allowed to continue his globetrotting ministry without public censure.”
The truth-telling that Shenk endorses is important, in part, because Yoder’s influence has never been greater. Interest in his writings continues to grow. Herald Press this fall is coming out with the second of three volumes of newly collected essays and articles. Even as his writings, most notably The Politics of Jesus, continue to enrich the Anabaptist movement, the shocking gulf between his words and actions — an eloquent preacher of peace inflicting sexual violence — cannot be overlooked.
Truth-telling also is essential because the church owes Yoder’s victims a public apology for not treating them with the same respect as a powerful man. At least 36 women whom Yoder harassed and abused have been documented, and likely there were more. They deserve to hear from institutional leaders that they were right.
In contrast to the praise posthumously bestowed on Yoder in books and lecture halls, few have paid attention to the voices of those he preyed upon. It was those voices — along with allies who spoke out and an institution that listened — that finally broke the silence. In the spring of 1992, Bethel College in North Newton, Kan., removed Yoder from the roster of speakers at a conference it was hosting. For the first time, Yoder was made publicly accountable. A woman he victimized told MWR that Bethel was “the first institution in the church that has taken this seriously.” Yoder’s ministerial credentials were suspended in 1992 and revoked in 1996.
Today, the serious work of confession and truth-telling remains unfinished. MC USA delegates this summer passed a resolution to protect children and youth from abuse. This commitment to protecting the vulnerable should extend to restorative efforts for adult survivors.
The church itself stands in need of restoration. Though institutional leaders and even denominational identities have changed, wounds remain. Those Yoder abused must always be foremost, but others carry different scars of pain and regret. Shenk quotes AMBS professor Ted Koontz, who says the wounded include “some who carried major responsibility to work at stopping [Yoder’s] abusive behavior, who were unsuccessful and who were burdened by the weight of that hurt.” Anger at institutional complicity should leave room for compassion for these individuals.
In the decades since church institutions’ dealings with Yoder were kept secret, Mennonites have made progress on abuse prevention. Awareness has risen of the need to believe victims and deal decisively with sexual abuse and harassment. But the church must do more to complete its response to Yoder’s actions and make amends. It is time to acknowledge failures and recommit to lessons learned: Secrecy enables sin, but the truth can bring healing. Avoiding conflict only multiplies the cost and the pain. Justice for victims and preventing further harm are far more important than protecting reputations.